BEIRUT (Reuters) - Conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa are preventing more than 13 million children from attending school, leaving their hopes and futures shattered, the United Nations Children’s Fund said in a report issued on Thursday.
The UNICEF report “Education Under Fire” looked at the impact of violence on schoolchildren in nine territories, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya where a generation is growing up outside of the education system.
“It’s no coincidence in that what we see in terms of our TV pictures, the tragic pictures of people crossing on boats to Greece and Italy, very much comes back to the Syrian conflict and (to) the Iraqi conflict to a lesser extent,” UNICEF regional director Peter Salama said.
Refugees often say the education of their children is their top priority, he said, and many countries in the region simply are not able to provide that basic human right.
The study also looked at Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey - countries neighboring Syria and hosting large numbers of refugees, as well as Sudan and the Palestinian Territories.
Attacks on schools are one of the main reasons why many children cannot go to classes while many such buildings are now being used to shelter displaced families or are used as bases for combatants, UNICEF said.
In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya alone, nearly 9,000 schools are unable to be used for education, the report said.
Thousands of teachers across the region have abandoned their posts in fear, which has also stopped parents from sending their children to school, it added.
Countries hosting refugees are struggling to get children into schools because their education systems were never created to absorb such numbers, Salama said.
“Everyone is basically straining at the seams in terms in terms of dealing with this massive crisis, which is not surprising given that it is the biggest population movement since World War Two,” he said.
Children out of school can end up working illegally, often being breadwinners for their family. They are vulnerable to exploitation and can be more easily recruited into armed groups, he said.
UNICEF’s research shows children are increasingly becoming combatants from a younger age, Salama said, while students and teachers have been killed, kidnapped and arrested.
“We’re on the verge of losing an entire generation of children in the Middle East and North Africa. We must step up, otherwise it will be irreversible and long-term damage we’ve collectively inflicted upon the children of this region.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich